From the Archives: A Yacht Club in the Middle of Manhattan

by Peter Lemos Photographed by Kim Steele
Thursday, November 23, 2017

This article was originally published in the November 1980 issue of AVENUE.

The New York Yacht Club sits a good mile from the nearest water, and several miles from any serious yachting activity. Located on a sedentary side street in midtown, Forty-fourth west of Fifth Avenue, it seemingly has more in common with the nearby Algonquin Hotel or the Harvard Club next door, than with anything remotely wet. But because of one particular pewter cup resting in its trophy room, the Club, despite its land-locked location has come virtually to rule the seas – the seas on which yachts sail, at any rate. That proud vessel is the America’s cup, yachting’s most prestigious award. Earlier this fall, under the coolly professional sportsmanship of Skipper Dennis Conner, 38 the Club clinched its 24th America’s Cup race, with Conner’s Freedom easily sailing by Australia’s sloop in the best-of-seven series sponsored by the Club at Newport, Rhode Island. 

The Club always hovers in the background of this annual burst of color and excitement, and in that sense is often in the news – if obliquely. From the sidewalk, though, it seems anything but contemporary. There is in its heavy Beaux Arts facade a clear sense of the turn-of-the-century opulence that built it, reminiscent of the days before income taxes and subarbs when money was solidly – and unapologetically – part of city life. The Yacht Club then was an important arbiter of social status among New York’s wealthiest. It stood for much more than either yachting or money. It was the club of the Astors and the Vanderbilts, the Jays, the Schuylers, The Auchinclosses, the Belmonts and the Paines. Jay Gould himself had been denied membership because his business practices were considered too unrefined. When the present building was built in 1901, on land donated by J. Pierpont Morgan, it was fully intended to communicate its status to the non-yachting public.

The Yacht Club itself had begun nearly sixty years before that, as the modest venture of a small group of sporting businessmen whose leisure was equally divided between racing horses and racing pilot boats in New York Harbor. In 1844, John Cox Stevens, who operated the world’s first steam ferry between New York and Hoboken, formed the Club with nine other similarly inclined Knickerbocker gentlemen, and became its first commodore. 

They began informally, meeting at the old Astor Mansion downtown, or on one another’s yachts; but with the winning of the British Squadron Cup by the yacht America in 1851 the character of the club began to change – and with it the character of American yachting. The following years saw the growth of the Club’s social importance. In 1853 Commodore Vanderbilt joined, as did both Lorillard brothers. Summer activities of the club became increasingly focused on the “cottages” overlooking the ocean in Newport. The Club began to have standards that it had to uphold; in 1859 it expelled a member who in the off-season used his yacht to traffic in slaves. 

Informality persisted for a time, although meetings were generally held at Delmonico’s, but in 1970 a British challenge for the cup the America had won from Britain twenty years before invested the whole sport with new meaning. In 1872, to formalize its pre-eminent position in New York society and to enshrine its prize, the Yacht Club established itself in a building on Madison Avenue at Twenty-seventh Street, upstairs from the American Jockey Club. The following year the club commissioned Tiffany’s to create an official insignia to be worn by members who by now were required to wear elaborate uniforms with gold lace and brass buttons. 

Ostentation of this sort was mild compared to that which the members practiced afloat. By the turn of the century there were 47 yachts in the club that measured 150 feet or longer, and dozens over 100 feet. The tastes of members had grown in direct proportion to their fortunes. J. Pierpont Morgan had begun in 1883 with a modest steam vessel of 185 feet, which he named Corsair. That eventually got traded in for Corsair II, which measured 241 feet. Finally he settled for the Corsair III at 304 feet. But even that was no match for Cornelius Vanderbilt, who plied the waters of Long Island Sound in his 332-foot yacht, the Valiant

It was at about this point that the members turned their attentions to building a bigger “clubhouse.” The result was the building on Forty-fourth Street, a permanent monument to the members’ expansive tastes. When it was built, the present building was actually just an urban base for a network of “yachting stations,” scattered from Staten Island to Newport, many of which are not yacht clubs in their own right.

Through the years, yachting’s appeal has broadened and the number of serious yachtsmen increased, but America’s Cup yachting has belonged only to the richest. After two dozen challenges over more than a century the Cup has become virtually an icon to the mystique of American excellence. Countless millions of dollars have gone into its defense, and into the efforts to win it away. Sir Thomas Lipton, the British tea tycoon, tried five times to take the Cup away from the New York Yacht Club, and five times he failed. Between 1899 and 1930 he spent a staggering ten million dollars on the effort. By the time it was over the old gentleman had won, if not the Cup, then at least a reputation as the consummate good loser of his day. Once he was asked by an aging British matron if it wasn’t true “that the Americans put something in the water to make them win?”

“Yes, Madame,” he replied, “boats.”

Today the Yacht Club is no longer the social instrument of New York’s Four Hundred that it once was. It is very much a national institution, much more concerned with its guardianship of the Cup than with the preservation of social status. Many members are lucky if they make it to the club once a year. One who lives and sails in Connecticut but who works in New York manages to have lunch there once a month but is otherwise inactive. He is a member, he says, because the Club is the “mainstay of yachting in America.” Another member who keeps his boat in the Chesapeake Bay and rarely comes to the Club belongs because, “it’s the American Express Card of yachting; the penant is recognized every where.”

As the nation’s leading yachting organization, the Club offers surprisingly little to its members in the way of yachting services. Only two of the original stations remain and these are largely ceremonial, one at Mystic Seaport and one at Newport. Most members belong to local clubs as well. The New York Yacht Club still holds an annual sail in which 20 or 30 yachts participate. No longer are the yachts the steam behemoths of 80 years ago. Only a handful are over 100 feet, the largest being 149 feet. The majority are under 50 feet. 

Nor does the Club now hold any particular affinity for the cream of New York society. Nouveau-riche outlanders with names like Turner and Conner can become members as long as they know something about sailing. No Astors or Vanderbilts appear on the Club rolls today, but there are a few Morgans, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and Rothschilds. A Cronkite and a Buckley appear as well.

There do remain vestiges of the past. The voting rolls of the Club are still listed by yacht; and only those over thirty feet can vote. Women have only recently been permitted in the bar before 5 P.M. A great deal of value is still placed on decorum and protocol. Coat and tie are required at all times, with no exceptions. The by-laws prohibit the “evident display of business papers,” or the playing of cards in certain public areas.

The building itself remains the most evident tie to the Club’s past. Designed y Whitney Warren, who also did Grand Central Terminal and the New York Central Building at the foot of Park Avenue, the Yacht Club displays the same ebullient eclecticism that gives those buildings their grandeur. It is only when one begins to notice the nautical detailing present in the facade that the appearance of a yachting establishment emerges from the grandeur. What at first glance appear to be ornate, neo-Renaissance flourishes between the columns are actually scaled-down replicas of the stern lights of three Spanish galleons (or Dutch jachts depending on one’s source).

Once inside the Club the nautical theme is more apparent. The lobby is dominated by the gilded eagle which adorned the transom of the original yacht America. Over the entry way, carved in stone for all to see is the Latin proclamation, “NOS ACIMUR TUMIDIS VELIS,” which means “We speed on with swelling sails.” The grill room off the lobby, or “quarter deck,” was designed to resemble the “‘tween decks” of an old sailing ship. Everywhere are paintings, photographs and models of all types of boats, as well as dozens of trophies, many of silver, many made for the Club by Tiffany.

As it becomes evident that this is a yacht club, it is also apparent that this was the yacht club of Morgan and Vanderbilt. The interior is done mainly in carved caen stone, carved oak, and lavish terracotta. Corwning the red-carpeted staircase inside the lobby are two immense columns of variegated marble. The centerpiece of the Club is its Model Room, where one finds the models of every challenger and every defender of the Cup, in addition to hundreds of half-models of members’ yachts.  The room is a full 100 feet long, and 26 feet high, a scale which might have felt cramped only to J.P. Dominating the Model Room is a massive stone fireplace which reaches the ceiling. 

If the Club’s membership is today seemingly more democratic, the atmosphere of the place remains decidedly genteel. On any given day it attracts dozens of the faithful who work in the area and take lunches there, or stop in for drinks in the afternoon. Despite the obvious geographical inconsistencies, they come for one reason: their passion for yachts. It is invariably the subject to which their conversations turn. They can be found gathered in groups of two or three about the Model Room, soaking up its traditions, or in the bar soaking up more than tradition. But they are there largely to reaffirm that passion.

“How about Harry’s new boat?”

“She’s lovely to look at,” comes the reply, “but she doesn’t do well to windward.”

A few steps out the door on Forty-fourth Street, and conversation returns to the economy. 


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